Dan John has coached for more than 30 years. He’s helped hundreds of athletes pack on double-digit pounds of rock-solid muscle. As an athlete, John broke the American record in the Weight Pentathlon. He is the author of several books, including Intervention.
Read Dan’s most recent Men’s Health stories.
Some things are too complicated to possibly understand: taxes, space travel, women. But building strength doesn’t have to be. In fact, it can be as easy as 1-2-3.
A long-time favorite of coaches and trainers, the 1-2-3 method is as simple as it sounds: You’ll perform 1, 2, and 3 reps of an exercise. But you’ll concentrate only on your form—not how much weight you can hoist or how many reps you can bang out. Doing so will maximize the exercise’s training effect while minimizing the wear and tear on your joints and muscles.
I used this basic protocol with high-school sophomores, and watched them bench, front squat, and clean 205 pounds. And recently, a client plateaued at 8 pullups. After 6 weeks of applying the 1-2-3 method to the exercise, he could perform 20 pullups. It’s easy and it works. Follow the 5 steps below to get started.
How to Do it
1. Pick a lift from the list below. These exercises are based on the four human movement patterns—pull, push, squat, and hinge.
Pullup: Hang at arm’s length from a bar using an overhand grip that’s slightly wider than your shoulders. Point your legs in front of you, squeeze your thighs, and crunch your abs so your body creates a wide “C” shape. Your body should be rigid. Looking straight ahead, pull your collarbone up to the bar and squeeze your shoulder blades together. Pause, and slowly lower your body to the starting position.
Related: The 10 Secrets to the Perfect Pullup
Bench press: Hold a bar above your chest using an overhand, shoulder-width grip. Lower it to your chest, and press it back up.
Military press: Stand holding a pair of dumbbells just outside your shoulders, your arms bent and palms facing each other. Press the weights directly over your shoulders until your arms are straight. Then slowly lower the dumbbells to the starting position.
Back squat: Hold a barbell across your back using an overhand grip. Keeping your head up and chest high, push your hips back, bend your knees, and lower your body until your thighs are at least parallel to the floor. Push back to the starting position.
Front squat: Grab a barbell with a shoulder-width grip and place it in front of you across the tops of your shoulders. Now raise your upper arms until they’re parallel to the floor, allowing the bar to roll back onto your fingertips. Without letting your elbows drop, lower your body by pushing your hips back and bending your knees until your thighs are at least parallel to the floor. Push your body back to the starting position.
Deadlift: Bend at your hips and knees, and then grab a barbell using an overhand grip, your hands just beyond shoulder width. Push yourself to a standing position as you thrust your hips forward. (The barbell deadlift is one of the 17 Best Glutes Exercises. Find out what else made the list.)
2. Choose a load that you can lift for 5 repetitions. This is usually about 80 percent of your one-rep max. For the pullup, add a weight vest if you can easily do 5 in a row.
You want the load to feel light and easy, otherwise you won’t be able to perform every rep with perfect technique. Gradually increase the weight each workout, but never max out.
3. Follow this rep scheme: 1, 2, 3. Perform one rep, and then rest if needed. Then do 2 reps in a row, followed by a rest if needed. Finally, do 3 reps in a row.
You want to be fresh each rep. Don’t chase fatigue. Take as long of a break as you need to between reps.
4. Now program it. You can train as you normally do, supplementing your program with your chosen exercise twice a week. Follow the 1-2-3 rep scheme each time.
You can also create a quick, stand-alone workout by performing 3 to 5 sets of 1, 2, and 3 reps of your exercise. If you’ve chosen a deadlift or a squat, train like this no more than three times a week. Those movements put a lot of stress on your body. (Want a workout that builds muscle and cuts fat? Try The Anarchy Workout, a cutting-edge DVD program. One guy lost 18 pounds of fat in just 6 weeks.)
5. Every 4 to 6 weeks, apply the 1-2-3 method to a new exercise on the list.